What is in this article?:
- Size is No Excuse | Large Farmers Make Cover Crops Work
- Expanding cover crops
At 55, Mark Anson was ready to quit farming...and then he heard about cover crops. "The concept changed my life," he says. "We were successful and profitable, but we were farming dirt that was like a parking lot, not healthy or alive."
Anson admits cover crops had little economic impact this year, given the drought. However, they continue to have a major impact on the soil and his attitude. "Our soils need this protection, and we're having a huge impact on water quality and soil nutrients," he says. "There is something about looking across these fields and seeing the green cover. I can't point to a bunch of financial information that says this is the way to do it, but I haven't been this excited about farming since I was in my 20s."
If you think cover crops are for smaller operators only, don't tell Mark Anson and Lanny Greenhalgh. Anson sees them as an integral part of his family's 20,000-acre farming operation. For Greenhalgh, who farms several thousand acres near Guide Rock, Neb., cover crops build soil, retain moisture for higher yields and allow custom grazing.
Adding cover crops to any crop production program introduces new complications. The larger the operation, the larger the complications, such as when seeding cover crops and harvest labor needs clash.
Anson Farms includes Mark's brothers Mike, Douglas and Dan, as well as eight members of the next generation, yet labor is still tight with multiple five-person combine crews.
"We've had to find ways to plant cover crops at the same time," says Anson. "It's been a steep learning curve."
The learning curve started in 2009 when Anson attended a countywide informational meeting on cover crops. By fall 2010, the family agreed to try the idea, seeding 1,200 acres of highly erodible ground to wheat cleanings and some cereal rye. A pass with a weasel rotary harrow encouraged soil to seed contact. Reduced erosion and improved planting conditions the next spring convinced them to double (cover crop) acreage that fall.
Logistics made expansion significantly harder. Anson Farms operates in four counties in Indiana and three in Illinois, with 100 miles to the farthest farm. While their largest fields are around 150 acres, their average field size is only 23 acres.
Anson Farms operates in four counties in Indiana and three in Illinois, with 100 miles to the farthest farm and no field larger than 30 acres In 2011 they contracted with local retailers to spread seed mixed with fall fertilizer on 2,500 acres and again used the rotary harrow.
"We had some failures and some successes," says Anson. "We learned how to handle the seed, weigh it out and mix it. Some can be spread with a spinner, and some can't."
Sourcing the seed himself, Anson quickly learned that some sellers sell by the pound and some by the bushel. Using 50-lb. bags was out of the question. Totes could be ordered by pallet, but had to be shrink-wrapped to hold them in place. Weight per volume varied by type of seed and how well it was cleaned. With seeding by pounds per acre, amounts had to be converted and mixing rates adjusted, complicating record keeping even more.
This past fall Anson Farms planned to seed 5,000 acres, but doubled that amount when the dismal harvest freed up labor. Local cereal rye, annual rye, oats, radish and crimson clover were seeded alone or in mixes. Several retailers were used with a variety of equipment. In addition, the Ansons used their John Deere 30-ft. no-till drill on 750 acres of reclaimed coalmine ground.
To meet next year's goal of 12,000 acres, Anson plans to use multiple retailers to seed upland fields while still using a rotary harrow to improve seed to soil contact and will continue with no-till air drill on upland acres that are on the reclaimed coal acres and several types of planters on flat land and river bottoms. Up to 40% of targeted acres will likely be seeded by plane. Multiple test strips with no cover crops will be left for yield evaluation.
Along the way, both generations have caught the cover crop fever, learning to manage equipment, labor and seed handling. Adjustments continue to be made. Several students with farm backgrounds at nearby Vincennes University were drafted to run equipment this past fall, and more will be hired this coming fall. The rotary harrow will likely be replaced by another, lower maintenance, tillage tool.
Progress has been swift, but not always smooth. Anson notes that two of his brothers continued to drag their feet until this fall while tiling fields that had been planted to cover crops. "They saw 8-12-in. deep cereal rye roots and radish, both with earthworms under them, and they know this is good for the soil," says Anson.
That experience capped earlier findings. NRCS technicians with laser thermometers demonstrated that fields seeded to cover crops in 2009 were 35 degrees cooler and still growing when those on bare land were rolling up from last summer's heat. This fall, soil tests indicated higher P and K levels in fields cover cropped for two years versus conventional fields.
"We don't understand everything that is happening, but we are all fired up about it," says Anson.